Madras, Madras

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A brilliant debut novel captures in fine detail the experiences of a Tamil Brahmin family on and off trains
The Strike | Anand Mahadevan | Penguin Books | 274 PAGES | RS 299

Travelling from Delhi to Madras on the Tamil Nadu Express as a 20-year-old homesick boy, temporarily escaping the ultra competitive and rather alien world of Delhi journalism, the thick Marathi-accented female on Nagpur Station’s PA system announcing the arrival of Train No ‘Do hazar chay sau bavees’ was a massive relief. Nagpur was not only the exact midway point in the arduous 34-hour journey, it gave me the happy sense of being back in home territory. Anand Mahadevan’s brilliant debut novel, The Strike, evokes similar emotions.

This is perhaps one of the very few recent attempts at chronicling the life of middle-class Tamil Brahmin families in the tumultuous 1980s. The Strike is the story of Hari, an 11-year-old Tamil Brahmin boy growing up in a railway colony in Nagpur. He loves two things in life—Anamika, his Bengali classmate and neighbour, and trains.

But life takes an ugly turn when Hari and his mother Savitri head to Chennai for Christmas vacations on the Tamil Nadu Express. Chief Minister MGR’s death, the resulting violence and the statewide protests keep the train stranded in Ennore, on the city’s outskirts. Hari’s desire to drive a train lands him inside the engine, and amidst the scuffle between the driver and a few protestors, Hari accidentally sets the train in motion, killing a couple of MGR fanatics.

The climax is all about how Hari’s well networked upper middle-class grandparents hush up the case and arrange for his and his parents’ emigration to Canada.

Mahadevan writes in a clever and nuanced manner about Tamil Nadu’s language politics, and the general anti-Brahmin loathing of Dravidian politics and the ‘uncouth’ koothadis or actors in power. If you are a Tamilian nostalgic about the 1980s, this is the book for you.